Nothing was going to save him. Nothing. He was going to die here.
They were trapped. The zip crack of a bullet exploded in his ear. He could hear his squad yelling to each other, but he couldn’t make out the words. He could hear the enemy, speaking in their gruff language, and they were much, much closer. Rod crouched behind the rock and looked up to the moon.
It was full and beautiful.
“Probably the last time,” he said to himself. The bullets were cracking closer now. He could barely hear anything but their whipping sound.
Running from cover was almost certain death, but staying until he was overrun was absolutely certain.
He chose almost over absolutely and launched himself down the rocky mountainside. Lines of light speared the dark as tracers arced past him in both directions, coming from his comrades and his enemies.
“Keep moving!” he yelled to himself.
Suddenly all the noise stopped. In the silence he heard a squeak. Like someone stepping on a dog’s toy.
He was in the sun, dripping sweat, strolling a crowded market, when a woman wearing a black burqa walked toward him and stopped. That was strange, he thought. They never stopped. They always kept walking.
He saw the flash of silver as the blade drove for his chest. He reacted on instinct, grabbing her wrist, twisting it until it cracked and she screamed. He bent her broken arm back with both hands and stabbed her in the neck with her own knife.
She opened her mouth to scream, but only the rubber toy squeak sound emerged.
The boy, he had to be a boy, a face that young, that smooth, could only be a boy, not a man.
The boy tore open his vest, like a superhero. Underneath, instead of a colorful uniform, he was a mass of wires and explosives. The boy pointed at Rod, cursing in a language Rod didn’t understand. People around the boy scattered, but Rod knew there was no time to run. He curled, twisted, holding his forearm over his head. It was the only protection he could reach in time. From the corner of his eye, he saw the boy disappear in a white flash.
The explosion sounded like a rubber duck squeak.
“Help us!” voices cried in the darkness, between the explosions. “Help us!”
Rod couldn’t find them. His night vision goggles had been torn off. He stepped in something slippery that made a terrible moaning sound. He was in Hell. He was never going to get out. He was going to die horribly, like everyone around him. Nothing could save-
“Hayger!” North screamed. He could hear the horror in his own trembling voice. “Guys! Hayger’s down. It’s bad. Hayger. Come on, buddy!” North looked down at his friend, the man’s uniform darkened with blood the blood all over his chest. Hayger’s eyes were lightly closed, his mouth opening and closing, no sound coming out but a dry breathing-
Hayger was gone. North was alone, ducking between rocks, trying in vain to not kick up dust. The enemy was out there, stalking him. Nothing was going to save him. He was going to die. Die in this-
What the hell was that squeaking noise in the middle of this burning hot barren moonscape dump of a country?
“Daddy?” a young boy’s voice said.
Rod shook his head.
Rod opened his eyes.
The memories of blood and mayhem were gone. He was staring at himself in his bathroom mirror, scars crisscrossing his chest, water dripping from him, a towel around his waist. The steam in the air was clearing.
“Daddy? Are you okay?”
Rod looked down. His son Toby was at his side, tugging gently at the towel.
Why is Toby here? Rod wondered.
His son reached out and touched Rod’s massive fist with his finger.
“What are you doing to Mister Duck-Duck?” Toby asked.
Rod opened his left fist. The squashed rubber yellow duck toy let out an airy gasp, as if breathing a sigh of relief.
Toby took it from him and cradled the toy in his cupped hands until the rubber popped out to its normal shape. Then he threw his arms around Rod.
The horror in Rod’s mind dissolved. The blood and the dust, the stench, the tension and the fear melted away. They were all powerless against Toby’s feeble grasp and the supernatural powers of Mister Duck-Duck.
Rod knelt and hugged his son.
“Daddy,” Toby sighed.
“Hey, buddy,” Rod said. “I love you. Don’t know what I’d do without you.”
“I love you too, Daddy.”
He hugged his son, pressing his face into the boy’s neck.
If you only knew, kid.
When Rod could feel Toby squirming, he released him.
“How did you get in, buddy?”
Footsteps sounded on the carpeted stairs. Rod frowned. He stood and turned.
“Hey,” Carol said, abruptly.
“Hey,” Rod answered, just as terse.
“Why are you up so early?”
“Guy Barra’s on vacation,” he said. “I’m covering for him.”
“Real vacation,” she said, “or,” she made quotation marks with her fingers, “Special Vacation?”
“I don’t know,” Rod said.
Carol rolled her eyes.
“Barra. He the short one? Olive skin, dark bushy hair?”
“He’s kind of cute.”
Rod didn’t respond.
Toby sat on the floor and tossed Mister Duck-Duck from hand to hand.
“I let us in,” Carol said, “because I didn’t think you’d be up.”
“How did you get in?”
“I still have a key.”
“You want it back?”
“I just didn’t know you had one.”
“Here,” she said, pulling the key from her key ring. “Take it.” She slapped the key on the sink counter.
“So, can you pick him up, too?” Carol said.
“Yeah, I got him.”
“Daddy,” Toby said. “Mommy said I can stay over.”
“Of course you can, buddy.”
“Yay! That will be the best!”
Carol pressed her lips together tightly. Rod smirked.
“All right, Toby,” Carol said, “Mommy’s going now.”
“Aren’t you going to give me a hug?”
Toby looked up at Rod. Rod met his gaze but didn’t say anything. He looked at Carol and shrugged.
“Come here,” Carol said, kneeling. “Give mommy a hug.”
Toby walked toward her, head down. He put his arms around her limply.
“You love mommy, don’t you,” Carol said, rubbing his back. “You love her, right?”
“Yes,” Toby muttered.
“All right,” Carol said, standing. “I’m out. Don’t forget to pick him up, okay? I’ve got plans for tonight.”
“Sure,” Rod said. “You’ll have to let yourself out.”
“Oh I’m good at that,” she said, laughing. Her cell phone chirped. She picked it up and was talking as she descended the stairs.
“Yeah,” she said, “I can do it. Is everyone going to be there? Just dropped the kid off. Freedom for one beautiful night.” She chuckled, slamming the door shut behind her.
Rod turned to Toby. “Hey, buddy, you want to go play while I get ready?”
Toby didn’t move.
“What’s up? Why do you look sad?”
“Daddy, can I stay with you?”
“Sure. You’re staying over tonight.”
“I mean, forever.”
“Don’t you like staying with Mommy?”
“She has friends over. They get loud. I can’t sleep. And they smoke. It stinks.”
Rod knelt by his son.
“Hey, I’ll talk to Mommy about that. Right now, we’re together. So let’s have fun before I take you to school, okay?”
“And tonight, it’s nothing but pizza and movies.”
“You got it.”